A Mississippi poultry plant is being sued by a woman whose 16-year-old son died working there

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The mother of a 16-year-old who died in a workplace accident at a Mississippi poultry factory is suing the companies that hired and employed him, accusing them of failing to follow safety standards that could have prevented his death.

In court papers filed at the Forest County Circuit Court last week, attorneys for Edilma Perez Ramirez said Mar-Jac Poultry skirted safety protections, leading to the death of her son Duvan Perez. The lawsuit follows a January report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration that declared numerous safety violations related to the death of the teenager, who immigrated to Mississippi from Guatemala years ago.

“Mar-Jac and its affiliates have a long and sordid history of willful disregard for worker safety,” the lawsuit reads.

A Mar-Jac spokesperson did not respond to email and phone messages Tuesday. In previous statements, the company has said it relied on a staffing agency to hire workers and didn’t know Duvan was underage. Federal labor law bans the hiring of minors in several hazardous work sites, including slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants.

In July, Duvan became the third worker to die in less than three years at the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, plant owned by Mar-Jac, a Georgia-based poultry production company.

In 2020, 33-year-old Joel Velasco Toto died after a co-worker “inserted an air-compression hose into his rectum,” the lawsuit says. In 2021, 48-year-old Bobby Butler died after becoming entangled in a machine he was cleaning.

Workplace safety officials launched an investigation into Duvan’s death in July. OSHA investigators found that he was killed while performing a deep clean of a machine in the plant’s deboning area. He became caught in a still-energized machine’s rotating shaft and was pulled in, officials said.

The lawsuit says that Mar-Jac allowed Duvan to clean the equipment despite his age and alleged improper training.

Attorneys for Perez Ramirez also sued Onin Staffing, an Alabama-based company that does business in Mississippi. The staffing agency assigned Duvan to work at the plant even though it knew he was a minor, the lawsuit says. After Duvan’s death, Onin filed a notice with the state to avoid paying worker’s compensation,the lawsuit claims.

Onin did not respond to emailed questions Tuesday.

Federal investigators said that plant managers should have ensured that workers disconnected the machine’s power and followed steps to prevent the machine from unintentionally starting up again during the cleaning. They cited Mar-Jac for workplace violations and proposed over $200,000 in penalties.

OSHA had issued at least eight citations for safety violations at the plant before Duvan’s death, the lawsuit says. These include the deaths of Toto and Butler, three amputations and a hospitalization due to a fall.

After the accident, Labor Department officials said Duvan’s death offered a reminder that children remain vulnerable to exploitation in the U.S. workplace.

In a written statement, Seth Hunter, one of Perez Ramirez’s attorneys, said Mar-Jac’s customers, including Chick-fil-A, should insist on improved working conditions or stop doing business with the company.

Duvan “was hardworking and loved his family,” Hunter said. “One of the things he was most proud of was paying for his first car himself. It is a tragedy that this young life was taken when his death was easily preventable.”

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.

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